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The Role of Technology in Mining Safety and Environmental Protection

By Kate Collier & Garyn Rapson, Partners at Webber Wentzel

Modern mining practices routinely integrate technology into workflows to improve operational efficiencies. While competitiveness is a compelling reason for innovation, technology development and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) can also play a role in managing employee health, decreasing safety risks, and managing the environmental footprint of mining and extractive industries.

Years since the rudimentary (and now proverbial) methods of canaries in coal mines to detect hazardous conditions mechanical and technology-based equipment is essential in early detection of hazards, many of which may not be immediately visible, or detectable, by employees in those workplaces. The history of technology use in mining demonstrates the enormous value of investing in it for such purposes, particularly when seeking to marry increased safety and life protection with deeper and more advanced mining methods. Continuous innovation has a long history combining increased production and operational efficiencies to occupational health and safety, incident management, and environmental protection.

Is the law keeping up with the role of technology in health and safety?

South African mining safety legislation in recent years has made strides towards incorporating the use of and reliance on technology – but this does not come without its own pitfalls. Systems for the identification and warning about pedestrians near trackless mobile machinery, or speed limiters on moving machinery are well used and understood, for example. The regulator, however, needs to strike the careful balance between keeping regulation and expectations of employers “up to date” or “modern”, while remaining mindful of the practicalities of real availability of technology in the South African market, reasonable expectations on capital allocation and, perhaps most importantly, the protection of jobs – or adequate time to reskill and redeploy employees. 

Practical achievability is an important consideration in ensuring the buy in of industry and enthusiasm for these changes more generally. The reason for technological advancement, and the benefits it may be expected to reap, cannot be a justification for the premature promulgation of legislation, that renders the law impossible to reasonably comply with.

This is not to say that those laws should be discouraged – rather that careful consideration be given to the ability of the industry at large to comply with them. There are many important and encouraging legal developments that are contemplated and which should be encouraged, such as the April 2023, draft amendments to regulation Chapter 16 of the regulations to the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) contemplating that missing person locator systems be implemented at mines with a significant risk of slope failure (read Webber Wentzel’s insights here) requiring those mine operators to incorporate this technology into safety and emergency response. This can only be a positive development – assuming industry, including suppliers and manufacturers of the systems, are fully prepared ahead of any effective date, including on aspects such as having completed the necessary risk assessments, identified suppliers, allocating of sufficient budget, safe testing and roll out and adequate training of users.

Central to the safe and effective use of technology and AI in safety, is the identification of appropriate checks and balances or safeguards. Over reliance on technology can yield its own risks and present different dangers, which must now also be factored into risk management. Technology can, and does, fail. The safe use of technology in safety management then requires that the potential failure of that technology be planned for.

One the greatest impact areas that we see for AI and technology in mine safety is its use and application in training. Virtual reality training can provide employees with realistic training, allow for practical and safe assessment of employees in virtual workspaces and allow for safe cross over between theoretical training to on the job application. 

Having regard to the environment and waste reduction, new technologies are required to improve efficiency of mining by improving ratios of products being mined versus waste being generated and disposed of. Such technologies focus on mechanical cutting, sensor-based ore sorting, diversion of waste at source etc. Further technological developments could see introduction of improved extraction technologies to re-mine old waste and dispose of remaining waste on newer, and safer waste facilities with a net positive to the environment. This would enhance the role of technology in protecting the environment and sustainable mining.

Incorporating green and renewable energy within mines

The mining industry has demonstrated a focused shift to incorporating green and renewable energy into medium and long-term operational objectives. With investment into the infrastructure required to give effect to these objectives, comes new dangerous and difficult work sites. Chemical plants, processing facilities, refineries, and other hazardous installations are vulnerable to the risk of explosion and other devastating effects that risk environmental and employee safety. An approach to preventing harm in these circumstances may be the incorporation of remote operability and monitoring. Minimising the need for direct human intervention in critical but dangerous operations reduces the risk of human error. This is particularly the case when the stakes of catastrophic environmental accidents and safeguarding personnel from potential exposure to harmful environments are unusually high.

Advancements in data analytics and sensor technology facilitate real-time monitoring of safety parameters, enabling early intervention and risk mitigation. In this way, mining operations may minimise the environmental impact of their activities through early and automatic detection of data shifts that indicate possible risks. Many industrial machines already have enhanced capabilities to collect and interpret data that enable operators to track, for example, CO2 and other harmful emissions in real time. This may facilitate early corrections before any harm occurs to the environment, thus enabling a more sustainable and responsible approach to resource extraction and processing.

Looking ahead: Is AI the ultimate solution?

As a forecast into the future, artificial intelligence (AI) will significantly alter the way mines approach risk assessments, environmental monitoring, impact predictions, and training initiatives. By using digital twins, virtual environments and simulated scenarios, designated officers can identify potential hazards, and conduct training exercises without exposing personnel to real-life risks. In addition, to minimise operational downtime and identify unanticipated risks to human lives, maintenance teams may assess and inspect a virtual 3D environment before carrying out physical maintenance. Similar to this, 3D environments will be valuable in emergency response and rescue situations to enhance environmental and employee safety before being deployed to unsafe conditions.

However, the integration of AI and other automated solutions also presents challenges, particularly regarding data integrity. The effectiveness of such technology often lies in the quality, quantity, and frequency of the data it relies on. Whether data is collected from manual input or data gained from other technology such as sensors, videos, tracking devices or pressure monitors, there are risks inherent to both methods of data collection that must be catered for. Likewise, cybersecurity will become an important feature of safety protocols within health and safety frameworks given the risk of hacked or failed systems might have on human lives and the environment.

To tech or not to tech

In selecting appropriate technologies, a tailored approach is essential. Solutions must align with specific operational needs and safety requirements that are appropriate to the risks of the particular site and ensuring that any hazards presented by the introduction or use of technology are addressed and controlled. The selection of appropriate technology depends heavily on the competencies of those selecting it.

Embracing innovation is a cornerstone of safety and environmental strategies, by prioritising proactive investment into technology, the industry can foster a culture of safety, sustainability, and resilience.

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